NEW YORK – More than 800 New York Army National Guard Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry, will lead the world's largest St. Patrick's Day Parade for the 167th time on Saturday.
The battalion, known as the "Fighting 69th," was organized as a militia unit for Irish immigrants. In 1851 the battalion was asked to lead the annual parade of Irish Catholics in case of anti-immigrant violence.
The battalion has had this honor ever since, celebrating its Irish-American heritage.
The unit was dubbed "that fighting 69th Regiment" by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, after he witnessed their charge at the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862.
The unit's Soldiers also distinguished themselves in World War I, World War II, and during combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001.
The regiment's unique Irish roots led St. Patrick's Day to become the battalion's "Unit Day," in which the Soldiers are recognized for their accomplishments and enjoy fellowship together.
While today's 69th Infantry is not the full Irish regiment of a century ago, the unit still remains a reflection of New York City's immigrant community, said battalion commander Lt. Col. Don Makay.
"The battalion started as an immigrant battalion, and continues to reflect the immigrant nature of the city," Makay said, "although that immigrant is no longer just Irish, but from many different countries."
"For the 69th, the day doesn't necessarily instill pride in being Irish, as many of our Soldiers aren't Irish; it instills the pride in being a New Yorker, an American and a Soldier," he said. "Something the Irish started with the regiment but has since been carried on by many nationalities."
This year the unit will host Lt. Gen. Daniel Hokanson, the vice chief of the National Guard Bureau, and mark the unit's centennial of service in World War I as part of the 42nd Infantry "Rainbow" Division in France.
The regiment, renamed as the 165th Infantry for federal service in WWI, served with noted distinction in Champagne-Marne, Aisne-Marne at Château-Thierry, St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne.
It was during Château-Thierry that the regiment forced a river crossing under fire of the Ourcq River from July 28-31, 1918, suffering 264 killed in action, 150 missing and 1,200 wounded, more than half of the regiment's 3,000 Soldiers.
Then-Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commanding the 84th Brigade with the Alabama and Iowa regiments, commented on the New Yorker's actions exclaiming "By God, it takes the Irish when you want a hard thing done!"
A host of traditions surround the 69th and the St. Patrick's Day Parade.
Members of the 69th place a sprig of boxwood on their uniform as a reminder of the regiment's charge against Confederate lines at Mayre's Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg on Dec.13, 1862.
To mark their Irish heritage, the men of the Union Irish Brigade, including the 69th Regiment, put sprigs of boxwood in their hatbands.
The Union attack failed, but the burial details found that the Union troops who made it closest to the enemy fortifications before being killed had sprigs of boxwood in their hats.
It was their ferocity at Fredericksburg that led to their nickname, coined by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, "the Fighting 69th."
Officers of the 69th carry a fighting stick made of blackthorn wood imported from Ireland. The sticks, much like a British officer's swagger stick, are considered the mark of an Irish leader and gentleman.
The Soldiers are accompanied on their march by two Irish Wolfhounds, the official mascot of the 69th Infantry. The dogs are representative of the regimental motto, "gentle when stroked, fierce when provoked" and are led by two Soldiers.
The Soldiers, Sgt. Quentin Davis from Astoria, New York, and Spc. Ilya Titov from Rockaway Park, represent the battalion's NCO and Soldier of the Year.
These two Soldiers, selected as the best in the 69th, recently competed and were selected as the best in the brigade and will compete for selection as the New York Army National Guard State NCO and Soldier of the Year in April.
For the officers of the 69th the day begins at 6 a.m. with a toast of Irish whiskey in the commander's office, a room lined with 69th relics dating back to the Civil War. The traditions of the boxwood and the blackthorn sticks are explained to new officers, along with a look at the "Kilmer Crucifix."
The religious icon was once worn by poet Joyce Kilmer - the author of the poem "Trees" -who died while serving in the 69th in World War I. Today it is handed down from battalion commander to battalion commander.
These mementos of the unit's Irish lineage and the lead role in the city parade are meant to inspire a new generation of immigrant Citizen-Soldiers, Makay explained.
"I imagine the value of seeing this unit march is a reminder that the old values of opportunity, freedom, (and) equality are still alive and represented in the "Fighting 69th" and U.S. military," Makay said. "The Soldiers marching in the parade remind (us) all of a time when the Irish risked it all, sailed here, helped build a city, formed the 69th and that regiment has fought for the same values from the Civil War to the War on Terrorism."
"The parade is always a chance to show people, "yes, we are still here, and still ready to defend," he said.
At 7 a.m., the regiment's honorary bag piper leads the men out of the Lexington Avenue subway and over to 51st Street for a special Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral.
Following mass, the battalion marches to 44th Street and 5th Avenue, the official start of the parade.
The battalion is joined by its support company from the 427th Brigade Support Battalion, the 42nd Infantry Division Band, and numerous guests of the regiment from the unit's higher headquarters, including the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team and 42nd Infantry Division, two other notable Army formations of World War I fame.
The march formation also includes members of the Veterans Corps of the 69th. The corps, comprised of former members of the 69th, helps preserve the history of the regiment and fosters camaraderie, morale and welfare of the 69th's Soldiers and families.
The parade is also joined by volunteers from the Irish Defense Forces' 58th Reserve Infantry Battalion, who travel to New York at their own expense to share in the celebration with the battalion.
It takes an hour for the Soldiers of the 69th to march up 5th Avenue to the end of the parade route, where a special subway train picks them up and transports them back downtown to the East Village.
This year's unit awards and recognition ceremony will be held at the Great Hall of The Cooper Union, a similarly historic part of New York City, which opened in 1858.
The battalion will present recognitions to its Soldier and NCO of the Year along with an array of Soldier awards, including recognitions for distinguished service and conduct during the battalion's deployment to Australia in the summer of 2017 to train alongside the Australian army, the Order of Saint Maurice for excellence in the Infantry Branch, Long and Faithful awards to Soldiers with 10 or more years of service and educational scholarship from the Veterans Corps.
The blending of unit awards with the celebration of St. Patrick's Day helps foster immense pride in the organization and recognizing excellence in Soldier performance, Makay said.
"I say to the Soldiers, take pride in the history of this great unit, which has always stood for fighting for something bigger than yourself," Makay said of the parade and celebration of the unit's Irish roots. "Take pride in what it means to be a 69th Soldier - to be tough, fit and ready to fight and protect what's important."
The event will also include a special presentation from Irish Sen. Mark Daly, a representative of the Fianna Fail party who will present the unit with a flag recognizing the 170th anniversary of the Irish national tricolour flag.
Makay noted that after nearly 170 years of service, the commitment of Soldiers to serve and train to defend their neighbors and their nation has not changed.
"Many of the men who marched in the first St. Patrick's Parade with the 69th went off to defend the Union less than a decade later. The men and women who march this Saturday are of the same level of commitment, should they be called, and will serve and fight accordingly."